Tuesday, July 08, 2003

Sex education goes full circle

Male adolescent sexuality is a topic that Christopher Pearson has turned into a running series for his recent Saturday opinion columns in The Weekend Australian* ** (no URLs).

After positing a few weeks ago that teenage boys were much more modest in locker room matters than those of his generation (an expert opinion seemingly concluded from the field research of others, the empirics of which went undisclosed) Pearson has now turned his attentions from change-room to classroom, and the matter of in-school sex education.

Sex education would have to be one of the most fraught of all topics to write about. There are really only three possible genres, for a start: the first-person “when I was a horny teenager” flashback; the prim-and-proper scientific; and the coarsely humorous. In the institutional/educational setting, it is the scientific approach that predominates, of course. On the domestic front, sex as basic facts was also my dad’s modus operandi. In both cases, the key weakness of an objective approach to the subject is (or was, for me and my dad, anyway) the sheer level of embarrassment – an emotion so extreme as to filter out the information into a condition of near-uselessness for the recipient of the talk, and of paralysing didacticism for the information-giver.

Imperfect as it is – and was – this scientific sex education shibboleth at least had the advantage of only being a supplement, or last resort, in practice. My real sex education came from my peers; in the proverbial school playground (for me it was actually the school corridor; talking dirty being best accomplished – for whatever reason – when there was a fair chance of being overheard by an adult).

My late-70s-early-80s adolescence was the last tribe to have gone through the full school playground initiation ritual, however. From the mid-80s, the mass uptake of the VCR, combined with the onslaught of teen sex romp movies starting with Porkies (1981), meant that sex education would henceforth be available on screen, delivered in a non-threatening environment in the company of one’s peers, with the prospect of crippling mutual embarrassment being ruled out by the absence of adults. Other than as on-screen caricatures, of course – humour was the final, and most radical new ingredient, of what came to replace old-style “school playground” sex education.

Now there’s the Internet, and the teen sex romp film genre has been refined to an almost all-ages art form (the pioneering Porkies was R-rated, but American Pie (1999), in which seminal fluid came out from under the footy sock, as it were, was MA).

Otherwise, though, not that much has changed. Modern fathers may now use the first-person “when I was a horny teenager” flashback mode when instructing their sons (as in American Pie), but that can be explained by the indexation effect on the embarrass-ometer – if, as appears likely, the father/son scientific sex talk is now redundant (“I already know that stuff, Dad”), then it is surely an iron law that fathers must then up the ante, embarrassment-wise. As with currency inflation, no one really wins here; it is rather a matter of not getting left behind in the dust.

So back to Pearson. Although the scientific sex education is approach is now redundant on the home front, one presumes (and hopes, for the sake of the poor kids) that the first person lurid anecdote mode has not made it into the school classroom. The humour option would also seem to be ruled out for blackboard use – it is a truism that comedy, unlike drama, must be perfectly executed if it is to work at all. Given the high comedic standards set by modern teen sex romp films, and, I assume, their manifest lack of direct curricular suitability, quality “DIY” humour-based sex education would indeed be tricky to pull off. By default then, plain vanilla sex education is all schools can hope to do. Which fact makes Pearson’s criticism of a supposedly “controversial sex education pilot program” just baffling.

His litany of particular grievances with the Adelaide program – including criticising the “claim” that condoms are effective against AIDS – has a very familiar ring to it; sounding just like a relaxed dinner chat between George Pell and Fred Nile, circa 1988. The resultant irony, then, is which is the greater anachronism – Pearson’s dot-point tut-tutting at “the sexual equivalent of a drugs harm minimisation program”, or the claimed, supposed novelty of such a program.

If deeming that “homosexual relationships are … as valid as heterosexual ones” is indeed some dramatic new step, then (public) school-based sex education in the last decade or two must have been a strange thing to behold (“Yes, you’re right my boy – gay sex is legal throughout Australia, but we’re actually teaching the Saudi Arabian curriculum in this subject; you know . . . on the off chance, and all that”.)

Perhaps it’s all simply a zero sum game in the end: Pearson chasing after bureaucrats chasing after project development funding chasing after hapless teachers chasing after boys chasing after . . .

. . . Christopher Pearson? I’m actually not sure how, and with whom, this particular daisy chain is supposed to end. Anyway, the point I’m trying to make here is that Pearson’s old-fashioned prudery (in his day, we apparently learnt it from watching our pets – and, on that note, why isn’t chastity being taught more prominently) co-exists with a curious laissez-faire, the-Floodgates-have-Opened attitude to (some) children’s sexuality:

But there are few less attractive features in children under 12 than the knowingness – often bordering on lubricity – which is increasingly commonplace.**

I must say, I haven’t noticed these newfound libido-dashing, yet lubricious powers emanating from the under-12s myself. But if Pearson’s premise is correct, and young children are hyper-sexualised as subjects (as objects, it goes without saying), then surely the fact that Pearson finds it such a turn-off is a triumph, and not a negative? And, as Pearson reminded us last year, the ideal of chastity is not equally worthy of all children, with boy prostitutes, apparently, being beneath it.

It’s a puzzling world these days, all right – kids flouncing and flirting about like little Shirley Temples (and who even know what the girls get up to!), while adults prowl change-rooms dressed in only their nostalgia – erwwww!.

One final thought for you, Christopher, if you’re out there. Nature has handed a good many adolescents the gift of chastity, but done so in such a way as even the bawdiest teen sex comedies haven’t yet been able to really face it, head on. Acne – as long as there are zits, there will always be innocence. And I defy any teacher or filmmaker to come up with a program that sexualises pus-faces, humorously or otherwise. If somehow, you have managed to crack the code here, Christopher, I beg of you to please share it with the world – a persecuted teenage minority (?) will be freed from their sexual shackles, while the rest of us, who have had it too good for too long, will be abject slaves to their pent-up satisfaction (and pus-dripping); or, if not, cowering beneath a chaste burka somewhere in Saudi Arabia. Now that’s what I call a dilemma.

* “Rise of the shy young thing” The Weekend Australian 14 June 2003.
** “Sex trial arouses passions” The Weekend Australian 5 July 2003.

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